Dimensions of power, knowledge and rhizomatic thinking

CCl by Erwin from http://www.flickr.com/photos/erwinb/3636991314/

My first thought when I hear the word power is of an individual exerting power over another – getting them to do something or stop doing something (possibly by raising a physical or verbal fist). But I am guessing that’s not going to be enough in rhizomatic thinking where we are thinking about the connections and the rhizome.  My reading of De Leuze and Guattari has not so far rendered me able to use only their ideas so I have turned to some other ideas of power that I found useful in the past.  Masters students who were studying the implementation of information systems would get stuck in solely technological explanations of why an information system was deemed to have succeeded. Looking at Lukes’ different dimensions of power helped them and me explore the politics and human relations in ‘success’ and ‘failure’. I have linked to Lukes writing at the end if you are interested to read it and correct my interpretation.  There are four but I am too tired to look at Foucault.

A one-dimensional view of power is when one agent (an individual or an institution) prevails over another.  This may be through the rules of the game, for example where a teacher sets rules for a piece of assessed work. Alternatively the agent may prevail through threats or rewards, for example the disciplining of students who plagiarise, or the award of a prize.  This view of power shows us teachers and students potentially in conflict with each other but it can be a good starting point to challenge that view, as Dave encouraged us in Week 1. As Jollyroger says “playing with subversion in this manner seems a very interesting way of dismantling limiting structures of power that condition learning”.

A two-dimensional view of power sees power as exercised not through observable conflict but rather through control of the agenda.  Teachers can do this by being prescriptive about what is or is not to be discussed within the course. I have a memory from primary school (K-12) of the teacher saying to a very bright student – “Not another red herring”. So in the rhizomatic learning that is the subject of our MOOC, we could be influenced by what Dave puts in the P2PU space or by agents who promote or suppress topics. This has significant implications for the ‘community is the curriculum’ – the curriculum can become a site of struggle within the community.  I would find it too clumsy to draw on specific examples here from #rhizo14 but would be interested if you could recognise this in your own practice here. In my case, I have been bleating all over the place about not restricting our considerations to formal educational settings but to also think about informal learning.

A three-dimensional view of power demonstrates that the conflict may remain covert or as a potential.  An agent may prevail over another because the second agent (possibly unconsciously) is influenced by the will of the first.  My understanding of this view of power expanded rapidly during #rhizo14 in Week 2.  I had shared my wish to use the experience of this MOOC to enhance my understanding of De Leuze and Guattari’s theory, and Cath Ellis had posted an excellent post with a plea to engage with rhizomatic theory and some eminently practical advice on how to do that. And then… in the Facebook group Maddie posted a heartfelt message about how all this stuff about theory felt to her, and she describes it here. This was quite a turning point on #rhizo14 for me.  I responded in an attempt (that probably failed) to be more inclusive and thought very carefully about my contributions, previously and subsequently. Once I resisted the idea “well she can’t mean me – I don’t want to tell anyone they have to study theory” I began to move forward and realise that, regardless of my intention, I might have influenced others about what this MOOC was about by what I had said.  Of course it’s not as simple as that and agency works both ways in a three-dimensional view of power.  I have found Emily Purser’s posts on FB and her blog to be very revealing in helping me understand a bit more about the messy rhizome that is #rhizo14.  She said on FB ” I just keep telling myself that meaning is never in the text, it’s in the reading – and that’s something we actually do have enormous power over, if we see it that way.. that seems to be what I’ve got from a couple of decades reading ‘theory’ in conversation with good people, and I find that perspective a real gift in those frequent times of uncomfortable confrontation with power that I feel on the underside of”. So the reader and the writer have power and responsibility, and I think they are being exercised with good will and humanity on #rhizo14 but we have no room for complacency – it’s hard work.

It’s not pragmatists 1 – theorists 0 – it’s game on.  As Jenny Mackness said today,


Lastly, what I am dimly grasping about rhizomatic thinking is that it encourages connections between people with different ‘knowledge’.  This paper includes an explanation of a project in post-apartheid South Africa that tries to effect learning in people with different ‘knowledges’ “. Service-learning in South Africa can crucially contribute to the deconstruction of Western thought and the transformation of both indigenous knowledge and western knowledge.”

Can we accommodate different ‘knowledges’ on #rhizo14?


If you want read the original writing about dimesnions of power http://stevenlukes.net/ is a good place to start and especially


Premature Stabilisation of MOOCs and other things

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I have already posted on the recent discussion on MOOCs, and I was quite pleased with the discussion that ensued in the comments. There does seem to be some interest in the nature of the MOOC discussion, at least in the outer fringes anyway.  I had thought of posting a follow up but didn’t do so until I found myself posting an incredibly long comment on Dave Cormier’s recent post about the need for a philosophy of learning. Hmm, I thought – you really do want to write a blog post about this.

I liked the pragmatic tone of Dave’s blog post, particularly his recognition that in teaching and learning that we sometimes deal with ‘points’ of knowledge as ‘facts’ to move us on to the really interesting and challenging learning  that inhabits (or is banished from) the lines and spaces between points (read his post for a better explanation).

Dave’s post led me to reflect on the (in)stability of knowledge in the context of the recent discussion on MOOCs and on Connectivism.  My main experience of both of these phenomena was CCK08 a MOOC on Connectivism and Connective Knowledge in which I participated in 2008.  I have critiqued Connectivism as a theory, questioning its premature stability  “If Connectivism is mutable knowledge as it extends its network, then it will behave like the knowledge and networks it describes in the theory.” link to Networked Learning paper.  I have argued that Connectivism is a useful phenomenon rather than a theory and suggested ways in which it might be developed and used.  In those papers I compared Connectivism with Actor Network Theory that deals with the concept of stabilisation but I was pleased to find a somewhat more accessible treatment of stabilisation knowledge in Engestrom’s writing.

Stabilization knowledge is constructed to freeze and simplify a constantly shifting
or otherwise bewildering reality. It is used to turn the problematic into a closed phenomenon
that can be registered and pushed around rather than transformed. It
commonly takes the shape of fixed and bounded categories, but also narratives may
be used to stabilize. Stabilizing categories often become stigmatic stamps on objects,
both human beings and things. Engestrom 2007.

(Note: I just found Engestrom’s writing on stabilisation and possibility knowledge – other examples of the (in)stability of knowledge very welcome)

So we are sitting in a room at something that we call a table and we acknowledge that this table means something different to all of us but we can somehow suspend these differences and have a worthwhile conversation about the table that increases our personal knowledge of this table thing as long as we acknowledge the differences and are listening to each other.
In the part of the recent MOOC discussion I saw, this was not always happening.  I would characterise some of the contributions as either trying to solidify and stabilise the concept of a MOOC, or perhaps in Wiley’s case reject it.  To me it seemed like a bit of a power struggle between Knowledge as fact to be transferred, preferably via OERs, and Knowledge as implicated in the ‘new’ concept’ of MOOCs.  In both cases, there is the risk of a premature stabilisation of knowledge taking place: in the first case of fixed knowledge artifacts: and in the second case that MOOCs are a label for something that has happened in other ways in the past, and the label and premature stability could impede future development.

So why does this matter?

I would say because premature stabilisation removes the possibility of development and can exclude valid and relevant perspectives, as I argued in my previous post.  I don’t know if Siemens, Downes and Wiley complete the assigned Belenky reading;)

Let’s have some possibility knowledge in the OER and connected learning discussions.

Possibility knowledge, on the other hand, emerges when objects are represented
in fields with the help of which one can depict meanings in movement and transformation.
One traces transitions of positions in a field, which destabilizes knowledge,
puts it in movement and opens up possiblities. In this sense, possibility knowledge is
agentive knowledge, the instrumentality of agency at work.Engestrom 2007

I am a simple soul who needs to ground ideas in my personal experience or other examples, and so my reflections led me straight back to my own personal contrasting experiences of CCK08. (Warning: these are neither points nor facts but my own subjective interpretations of what happened within my own experience).
1.Once the disrupter had left, there was some great discussion on the (disapproved) Moodle forums where I was learning and observing others (appearing to be) learning. There was a great tolerance for different views and pragmatism of approach.
2. External speaker sessions where new ideas could be introduced and these may have sparked discussions amongst participants in the chat window, on blogs or in forums (suggesting learning).
3. Friday sessions which tended to be broadcast-only by George Siemens GS and Stephen Downes SD, with slightly quizzical moderation from Dave Cormier, plus a bit of lively chat window interaction often strangely disconnected from the monologues (at least in the ones I observed before giving up on the Friday sessions).

I think that 1,2,3 are in order of greatest to least learning taking place.

If we look at each in terms of who was (apparently) learning: in 1 participants learned frequently, GS sometimes, SD rarely; in 2 participants sometimes particularly if followed up, GS and SD more likely than in forums, presenter very little if at all; in 3 if learning was taking place here I couldn’t see it except in chat window interaction.
My own very personal views were probably highly influenced by my own reactions to the different environments, and by my own growing certainty that connectivism was something to be tossed around and critiqued not ‘learned’. I argue that MOOCs and connectivism are organic phenomena that are not ready for being tied down and ‘judged’.

Useful questions are:
How are MOOCs and Connectivism like and not like other phenomena X Y Z?

How do people make effective use of them?

What can the protoganists learn?

I think that Dave’s pragmatic approach might help – that OK we know knowledge isn’t really ‘transferred’ but sometimes that simplification of what is really happening can move things forward a bit. Attempting for precision of definition of things that are still a bit fuzzy for everyone doesn’t always help matters.  It’s still time for possibility knowledge in the areas of informal learning in a digital environment and modes of organisation (such as MOOCs, networks and virtual communities).
I found it interesting that Dave referred to parent/child interactions where provisional/revisional approaches to ‘knowledge’ are most helpful for learning – parents are there for the long haul, they don’t need to the last detail on the first attempt.
I would question every letter of the MOOC acronym with the possible exception of online but that’s not to say I think they are a bad thing – I am just not yet sure what they are going to be.
I think they can really maximise learning when participants can tolerate different philosophies of learning (including “I don’t have a philosophy of learning”), be good-humoured and willing to learn.

doi: 10.1177/1350507607079026 Engestrom,Y.  Management Learning July 2007 vol. 38 no. 3 271-275

Knowledge Transfer: old wine in new bottles or how many contentious statements can I make in one blog post?

Punning wine

Punning Wine By Mike Knell

(includes edited content from a comment I made to Stephen Downes blog post)

I have been watching a ‘debate’ unfold over the weekend with increasing mystification.  I even posted a couple of comments but I didn’t really feel that there was much idea exchange taking place. If you want to check it out, George Siemens has some useful links here .

For me the first old wine in new bottles (itself a fairly stale metaphor but I love the picture)  is the idea of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) – I thought that open fora and ‘free’ courses had been around for a  long time for example WebHeads in Action since 1997, open learning environments have been under discussion since mid 1990s at least (though open learning variously defined) e.g. http://carbon.ucdenver.edu/~bwilson/wils95 and I am sure (though I can’t find links at present) there have been free courses online (e.g. in HTML) since mid 1990s too.  Don’t get me wrong the recent crop of MOOCs has generated a lot of interest and experimentation but this will be more informed if they acknowledge their heritage.

The second old wine in new bottles is the terminology and paradigm debate.  Quite a lot of the talk was about the meaning of learning, knowledge and even the term ‘knowledge transfer’.  This one really made me smile, as the term ‘Knowledge Transfer’ has a fairly well-defined meaning in UK HE, as it refers to a funded graduate recruitment scheme where businesses, graduates and academic work in partnership to transfer knowledge between them – very contextual and processy, unlike knowledge transfer as item of ‘knowledge’ passing from sender to receiver . The knowledge transfer being discussed this weekend sounded more like ‘transmission mode learning’  about which acres of text have been written, and clearly linked back to earlier work on communication, explained and critiqued rather well here in the transmission mode of communication.

This critique also neatly demonstrates how a model originating from a viewpoint different from one’s own can still be useful (up to a point) in one’s own meaning-making.  I am very interested in how those to whom ‘learning’ means something different can still have a productive and meaningful dialogue. I think participants would have to start by trying to explain what the word means to them and then listen to what others have to say. It would also help participants (especially given the context of openness) to enter the dialogue with the possibility of changing their minds even if only in a small way.  Maybe what is important about theories of learning and knowledge is what they mean to learners and teachers, as we personally theorise the world around us. Since that can often be in a social context we need to get the knack of sharing theories in dialogue. I have observed over a long period (and on CCK08 in particular) that teachers use theories in a very pragmatic way (connectivism being a good example), sometimes thinking about transmission modes of learning, other times using constructivism and in our digitally-saturated environment, turning to connectivism to help them practice and reflect.  I spent a short time as a Maths teacher in school and saw the twin disadvantages of knowing your times tables without understanding how they were constructed and vice versa, whereas what practice of numeracy requires both that you know your times tables and understand what they mean.  This may be achieved by combining rote learning and discovery learning.

The last point I wanted to make was about the general tetchy tone of some of the contributions (notable exception being @dkernohan 😉 ) Stephen Downes using the term nonsense and David Wiley identifying a comment as the ‘snob’ response. Just what is this ?  are the writers claiming ‘truth’? ownership of ideas or concepts like MOOCs?  This seemed to me to a very ‘masculine’ debate (OK that’s my interpretation) both in terms of style and inclusivity.  I would playfully prescribe that the main contenders in this weekend’s debate assign themselves an OOC on Belenky’s Womens Ways of Knowing, since Belenky’s work challenged and grew out of Perry’s Model of Intellectual Development which emerged from a very restricted sample of white  middleclass male MBA students and was then generalised to others.

So here is my contention:

that if we want to grow and explore concepts like informal learning online, MOOCs and OERs for the benefit of all, we need to involve all – men, women, young, old, from different philosophical and religious perspectives, from countries all over the world, and acknowledge the contributions of earlier scholars.

Now that isn’t going to be easy, inclusivity never is, but I don’t think this recent ‘debate’ has contributed much – however good some of the individual contributions were, the whole left a sour taste, in my mouth at least.